Chapter VI

With the 10th of August a new era commenced. Royalism was finally and completely overthrown, and the Republic de facto established. The day following, Marat, emerging from his cellar, indemnified himself to some extent for his own stolen presses, by demanding and obtaining those of the Royal printing office. His journal reappeared on the 13th; the number treating of the proposed election of a National Convention.

Early in September Marat was nominated member of the Committee of Public Safety, a body whose function it was to search out and arrest conspirators. Its members were nominated by the Commune, whose decrees it was charged with executing. The “People’s Friend” had a Tribune particulière assigned to him. The 10th of August thus raised him from a fugitive in a cellar to the occupant of an important public post. “Marat is the conscience of the Hotel-de-Ville,” said one of its delegates.

As a member of the municipality, Marat has received a full share of responsibility for the September massacres. Did he use his influence in any way direct or indirect to instigate the summary executions which took place during the first week in September outside the prisons of Paris? On this point I will again quote Mr. Bowen-Graves.

“Marat’s part in these last terrible events has been constantly and grossly misrepresented. He had long foreseen and foretold what would happen if foreign invasion found Paris in a state of chaos. The predicted crisis had now arrived. On the east the Germans are at the Thermopylae of France. A step more, the Revolution sinks beneath them. On the west the standard of the Vendean insurrection is already raised. Between the two lies Paris, in hardly dormant civil war. Royalty is overthrown, but royalism is rampant. The Swiss guards, the rank and file have fallen, sacrificed to their fidelity to a master who had deserted and forgotten them; but officers, courtiers, chevaliers de poignard, are lively as ever, intriguing, plotting, vapouring in street and café, openly rejoicing in the triumph which German armies will give them measuring, compasses in hand, the distance between Verdun and Paris. The newly-formed tribunal is inefficient, acquitting men, notorious for their part in the intrigues, which were the cause of all the evil. Lafayette, with his army, is believed to be marching on Paris to restore the monarchy. Republicans knew well enough what such restoration would mean. The horrors of Montauban, Arles, and Avignon are written in history, to show how well-founded were their fears. And in the midst of all this came the tidings that the one strong place between Paris and the enemy is besieged; that its resistance is a question hardly even of days. Then, while the tocsin was clanging, and the alarm cannon roaring, and the Girondin minister could find nothing better to suggest, with his unseasonable classicism, than carrying into the South the statue of liberty, Paris answered with one instinct to Danton’s thundering defiance, and perpetrated that tremendous act of self-defence at which we shudder to this day. The reaction hid its head and cowered; and within the month the ragged volunteers of the Republic were hurling back from the passes of the Argonne the finest soldiery which Europe could produce.”

The whole position of affairs is summed up in the passages quoted. The September massacres were the work of a populace driven to a despairing frenzy by the combination of circumstances above enumerated. They were not the work of one party, much less of one man, but an ebullition of popular fury, acquiesced in as a terrible necessity by all parties and by all the leading men of the Revolution. It matters not that the actual perpetrators were comparatively few in number; this indeed the rather proves the massacres simply the expression of a widespread public feeling, as otherwise they would certainly not have been tolerated, when a single corps of the 50,000 National Guards; then in Paris, could have arrested or dispersed at the shortest notice all engaged in them. It matters not that the Girondin party subsequently endeavoured to make the Commune the scapegoat in the matter; this was an obvious piece of party tactics. They must have considered the massacres necessary at the time, otherwise as Marat himself expressed it, their inaction would have been the most heinous of crimes.

As to whether these summary executions were, under the peculiar circumstances, justifiable [1], is a question unnecessary to enter upon at length in this place; there can be no doubt they were really believed at the time to be the only alternative to the annihilation of the Revolution and of all who had taken any part in it, and the subjugation of France by the European coalition. It is in this light we must regard the letter to the Departments justifying the massacres, signed by the members of the commune, Marat among them. [2] This letter was an atrocious document many will say. Under the peculiar circumstances in which it was written one might well be disposed to excuse it; however, be it so, it was an atrocious document, and “September” was inexcusable. Yet does it not seem strange that civilised mankind, as represented by respectable politicians, should shudder and hurl every epithet of opprobrium at the agents of Paris in September, 1792, and speak with the utmost respect of the agents of Versailles in May, 1871? September, 1792 – 1,800 or at most 2,000 slain, all after some trial, however brief, by a populace in a burst of despairing rage; May, 1871, obscure prisoners of war maltreated and slaughtered daily in small numbers for a month, – this consummated in the moment of victory, by a carnage estimated officially at 15,000? Yet, viewed in its true light it is not strange. To the mind of respectable politicians, the difference, consists precisely in this, – that in one case the victims were respectable well-to-do upholders of “order,” while the perpetrators had emerged from the depths of St. Antoine, – in the other, the victims were only poor workmen, while their murderers were acting under instructions from a government representing religion and property.

That Marat personally and directly caused the death of a single individual during the September affair we have not a shadow of proof; indeed the negative evidence makes all the other way, for in none of the three numbers of the Ami published between the 10th of August and the first week in September do we find any sign of a desire to instigate lawless vengeance. There is a continuous goading on of the tribunals to definite and decided action. “Hasten the trial of the traitors imprisoned in the Abbaye. If the sword of justice, at this late period, do but strike these plotters and hypocrites, we shall hear nothing more said about popular executions.” Here and there a hint that if the appointed tribunal continues flagrantly to miscarry, justice must be secured by other means; beyond this there is nothing to give colour to any assumption of personal complicity in the events we have been considering.

Marat was elected on the eleventh of the month of October member of the National Convention. From that time the Ami du Peuple ceased to exist, and its place was taken by a new journal, headed Journal de la République Française, par Marat, Ami du Peuple, Deputé à la Convention Nationale, with a new motto, Ut redeat miseris abeat Fortuna superbis. Marat’s election, as might be imagined, caused intense vexation and disquietude to the Girondin party, then in office, who, as “men of position,” dreaded lest the influence of this questionable person as an orator should equal that he had acquired as a journalist.

It was scarcely a fortnight before war was overtly declared. The occasion of the first skirmish was the sitting of September the 24th, in the debate preceding the passing of a law against inciters to assassination, when the “People’s Friend” was indirectly, but very unmistakably indicated; indeed, the law itself was really aimed at him. The day following (the 25th) a furious onslaught was made. Pétion was presiding on this occasion. The Girondist Merlin opened fire with the words:

“I demand that those who are acquainted with men in this Assembly perverse enough to desire a dictatorship or triumvirate, shall point these out, that I may poignard them. I invite Deputy Lasource, who stated yesterday that there existed in this Assembly a dictatorial party, to indicate it to me, and I declare myself ready to poignard the first who would arrogate to himself the power of a dictator.”

A voice shouts out the name of Robespierre. Danton then rises, and in a short speech obliquely indicates Marat, without naming him. Robespierre follows, and, in a speech of some length, openly renounces the friendship, political and otherwise, of the “People’s Friend.” Both decline all responsibility for the acts of the Commune. Barbaroux then fiercely attacks the Commune, and demands its supression. Finally, Cambon mounts the tribune, and says:

“I have seen placards on the walls of Paris stating the only means for ensuring public safety to be the triumvirate, and these placards are signed ‘Marat’ – such are the facts. Reply! you who deny the project of establishing a dictatorial authority in Paris.”

Marat, hitherto silent, rose to confront the Convention he declaimed in full the article in which he had expressed his views respecting a dictatorship, Ami, 741. The article in question concludes, Oh! peuple babillard, si tu savais agir! No sooner had he uttered these words than the Assembly was thrown on all sides into violent disorder. Shouts of “to the guillotine” re-echoed from the Girondins: a decree of accusation was about to be launched, when Marat mounted the tribune for the first time and demanded the parole. Silence being in some measure restored, he began: “I have a large number of personal enemies in this Assembly.” “All!, All!” shouted the Convention, rising to its feet as one man. This interruption subsiding, he continued, fully avowed the article and the placard, and sought to justify the opinions contained in them, as to the desirability in view of the crisis, of one or two competent men, whose patriotism and power of determination were alike beyond question, being intrusted with the helm of affairs. Such was, he said, his opinion. If it was wrong it was for the Girondins or other dissentients to refute it, not to endeavour by senseless clamour to prevent his exercising his right of speech as a deputy. He had never conspired, he had never circulated his views in secret, but always proclaimed them “on the housetops,” in a public journal, and on the walls of Paris, with his signature appended to them. He gave them forth as his own views for the acceptance or rejection of his fellow-citizens. Surely he had as great a right to do this as any other patriot. This maiden speech, by no means a short one, was not concluded without many interruptions, but certain deputies secured for him the chance of defending himself, and concluding what he had to say. Just as he had ended, and was about to retire, he drew a pistol from his pocket, exclaiming,

“If the decree of accusation had been launched I would have blown my brains out at the foot of this tribune.”

“This is the reward of three years of suffering and privation of every kind in the cause of liberty.”

The trenchant good sense contained in the speech in the end effectually silenced all gain-sayers, and the Convention had no other course (however unwilling to adopt it) than to pass to the order of the day.

There is one actor in the scene just described who, on account of his intimate relations with its principal figure, and the calumnies which date their origin from him, should for a moment arrest our attention. This is Barbaroux, the young Marseillais, a pupil of Marat’s in his professional days, as well as an enthusiastic friend. Upon the outbreak of the feud between Mountain and Gironde, he sided vehemently with the latter, and at the period our narrative has now reached, had become a bitter enemy of his former master. This master remarked of him on one occasion, “I have had special relations with Barbaroux at the time when he was not tormented with the mania for playing a rôle. He was then a good young man, who liked studying with me.” And in the Journal de la République a private letter was published, addressed to its editor by Barbaroux a few months previously, in which he says: “Whether I am right or wrong in my opinions, the truth or falsehood of my intellect will never change my heart. I shall always remain at once your friend and companion in misfortune.” Unlike the Girondins, Marat did not wait till his opponents were dead, and defence impossible, before he made his accusations; but Barbaroux published, after the death of the hated Montaignard, letters pretended to have been received from him, which, if genuine, would have had enormous weight had they been produced during the struggle between Mountain and Gironde, when the latter was raking up every possible circumstance against the “Mountaineers” in general, and Marat in particular. They were not then produced, although Barbaroux was amongst the foremost of his detractors, and for a very good reason, they were at the time non-existent, their origin dating from some period between Barbaroux’s flight from Paris and his death in 1794.